En route to Banff, I drew the grasshopper in Wilkie, the dinosaurs in Drumheller and the marching Mounties in Stettler
The best drawings come out of the blue. You don’t wake up in the morning expecting to draw them; instead their elements fall into place quickly like one of those wooden puzzles with the knobs on the die-cut pieces that you used to play with as a young child.
A series of lucky events seemed to conspire to bring me to Stettler, Alberta, one day in June 1998. Jennifer, the woman who was in between being my roommate and my girlfriend, was at the Banff Centre and I was on my way there from Saskatoon, where we lived. She had left me fifty dollars for gas so I could pick her up after her workshop, and I had accepted, hoping that when the time came I wouldn’t need it and I could give it back. I did need it, of course. I had been waiting for a cheque to come from the Globe and Mail for one of a series of drawings I was doing for them, and when it was time to leave, the cheque still hadn’t arrived. So I set out from Saskatoon with just a tank of gas and the fifty dollars.
On my way to Banff I made a couple of stops. I stopped at Wilkie, Saskatchewan, and drew the giant grasshopper that stands on a hill near the community centre there. I stopped in Drumheller, Alberta, and drew the dynamic models of dinosaurs made by the artist Brian Cooley that stand guard outside the Royal Tyrrell Museum. But when I stopped in Stettler, I had no idea what to draw. It was a chilly morning for June—later that night snow would fall—so I asked directions to the library, where I hoped to warm up (the heater in my car didn’t work) and draw a picture in my sketchbook while I figured out what to do next. As it turned out there wasn’t a library in downtown Stettler any more. So I went into the storefront where I was told the library used to be, a place called Happy Hearts Importing. It was a combination coffee and gift shop run by a middle-aged couple named Ennio and Jeanne Campanelli. I assumed that these two owners were the Happy Hearts—they certainly were in a good mood the day I dropped in. They were happy to be together, happy to be in Stettler and above all, happy to be out of Quebec. I got the impression that an Italian guy and a French gal who chose to speak to each other in English met with disapproval there. “Bah Quebec,” said Ennio, his sunny visage clouding momentarily. “You might as well live in a police state, with their language laws, their Bill 101. No, I’m happy to be in Stettler.”
I wanted to settle a while in Stettler too and I cast about for something to draw on one of my thin, wide sheets of illustration board, which were the right proportion for the Globe and Mail drawings. No subject presented itself, and I had to keep in mind that my editor at the Globe gravitated toward timely and noteworthy subjects when she chose drawings for the Focus section. Only very rarely did she run a good drawing that was only a good drawing. So finally I asked the Happy Hearts if anything was happening in town that day. Jeanne thought for a while and then told me that the RCMP were due to march through Stettler at one o’clock. My heart leapt for joy. Perfect! It must be part of the Mounties’ 125th anniversary celebrations. I had read that they were making a largely non-mechanized re-enactment of early patrols and they were stopping in at communities across Canada. I went right outside and started to draw the main street of Stettler. It would take me a while to draw the buildings straight to ink, as I like to do when my subject is sitting right in front of me. Then, when the marching Mounties came through, I would draw them with my pencils in a sketchbook. I wouldn’t have time to capture them in ink right there on the spot with as much detail as the rest of the street. It was going to be a queer way to make a drawing, all right. I’d be starting with the background and finishing with the foreground later in my studio in Saskatoon.
The morning passed by, the wind picked up and I made pretty good progress with the background of the drawing. It was a busy Saturday in Stettler, with cars and trucks coming and going from angle parking spots on the main street. At one point a massive, shiny pickup truck with all the optional features drove up and parked near where I stood with my drawing board resting on top of a parking meter. A young family piled out of the truck—a glamorous woman and a square-jawed man holding a baby. The man and the baby had matching Stetson hats. The woman went off to do some errands and the man stood holding the baby not far from where I worked. I thought that the man was looking at me in a menacing way through his round sunglasses, or trying to, though it is well nigh impossible to look intimidating when you are holding a baby. Also the wind kept blowing the baby’s miniature Stetson off his head. The hat was white and stiff and it made a clattering sound as it rolled down the sidewalk on the edge of its brim. Over and over the man chased the hat down the sidewalk, put it back on the baby’s head, took up his position a few feet away and resumed glowering at me. Finally the woman came back and they drove off.
A few moments later the RCMP event was all over. About eighty Mounties in scarlet tunics, led by pipes and drums and a colour guard in old-fashioned uniforms with pillbox hats, quickly marched by. I made some fast pencil sketches of the parade but I couldn’t capture a lot of information. What really saved the drawing was Ennio, who had run out of the Happy Hearts with his camera and snapped four or five good pictures of the march from the sidewalk in front of the shop. I was packing up and getting ready to leave town when Ennio rushed up to tell me what he had captured on film. He then went to Stettler’s one-hour photo place and I unpacked and walked over to wait for the prints. In an hour I was back at the table at Happy Hearts that I had occupied that morning, lightly pencilling in the marchers over my finished background drawing.
I picked up Jennifer in Banff the next day, and the day after that we wrecked the car and she broke her back and got pregnant with our son (not all at the same time). Some time later, in Saskatoon, while she lay recovering in a hospital bed, I finished the drawing of Stettler with the help of Ennio’s photographs. When the drawing ran in the Globe and Mail, I telephoned Ennio to let him know. “Beautiful,” he said.